Any of Great Pretender's con artist characters will tell you that first impressions are essential – they set expectations for everything that comes after, and will continue to color your perception until the very end. Great Pretender makes a fantastic one, with its cold opening of Edamura swinging from the Hollywood sign transitioning to its stylish jazz theme song. However, failing to fulfill those expectations can be dangerous, and things can go south in a moment. Fortunately for us, the show manages to keep up its energy and intrigue for all three of the arcs that are currently available in English.
For all that Makoto Edamura considers himself a great swindler, he's pretty small-time until Laurent waltzes into his life. He gets pulled into a series of cons where failure to fool their marks doesn't just mean the possibility of jail time – it could easily cost them their lives. His sweet smile may be enough to fool an old woman in Tokyo, but it means little to drug-dealing movie producers or dour Middle Eastern oil princes. Laurent tells him only as much as he needs to know, treating him more like a chess piece to be placed strategically than a compatriot; and the third member of their team, Abby, doesn't seem to care if he lives or dies.
With a bit of strategic editing, each arc could easily be an individual heist movie rather than a series of 25-minute episodes. This is a good thing, since the heist structure of constant escalation designed to keep the audience guessing works best in chunks of a couple hours or so, rather than an episodic format or single long-form story. They make plans, things go awry, they change gears, and Laurent keeps smiling and pulling the strings. It's a lot of fun watching just to see how they'll wiggle their way out of each situation, and that alone would make the show worth a look even if everything else about it were weak.
But, happily, that isn't the case. Great Pretender is a strong effort on every possible front, with solid character writing to back up each arc's twists and turns. These characters aren't good people – they are, as Laurent proudly proclaims, "confidence men" – but they're all quite likable regardless. The main cast play off each other extremely well, with a real sense of teamwork and collaboration, even when they don't exactly like each other and are looking out primarily for their own interests. They target people who attained their wealth through ill-gotten means, stealing from the rich and giving to… well, mostly themselves, but throwing some cash at those most hurt by their marks as well.
Plus, Great Pretender has greater awareness than most stories with morally-grey characters about the circumstances that lead people to lives of crime. Crime doesn't happen just because people are bad; it's often born from a combination of cultural and economic factors. Edamura resorts to scams when his father's criminal record prevents him from getting a real job. They meet an ex-gangster in LA who ended up where he is because there are few opportunities for impoverished Latino youth. It's a constant balance where going too far to one side would turn Great Pretender into a dull morality play, but too far to the other and the characters become unsympathetic and hard to root for.
The grounded character writing, combined with effective use of real-world locations, makes everything feel like it could easily take place in this universe. The first arc, which takes place in Los Angeles, is especially striking. For its popularity as a setting, few media depictions of LA really nail it. They either universalize an extremely narrow slice of the population's experiences – specifically, pretty white people going to parties in the Hollywood hills – or they have nothing to do with the reality there. The LA I saw in Great Pretender felt more like the real one: a highly stratified, diverse city full of people living completely different lives that really loves its In-N-Out. I can't vouch for the other settings, since the Singapore arc takes place around the highly touristy Marina Bay Sands and I've never been to London, but seeing an LA that felt somewhat familiar felt really nice.
It's funny how real the settings feel, considering the backgrounds are done in over-bright, stylized colors. It works well, and the show as a whole looks great with attractive character designs from Yoshiyuki Sadamoto. Every single character is gorgeous, but with a lot of variety in their appearances as well. My one vague criticism is that sometimes they look a little too pointy, with chins that could cut glass, but even then it's not consistent and is fairly mild.
Everything is pulled together by an excellent voice cast, in both languages. In Japanese, Junichi Suwabe particularly stands out as the charming-but-unctuous Laurent, with strong performances throughout. The English dub was done by NYAV Post, one of the only anime dubbing studios that works with union actors, and their extra effort shows through in one of the best dubs in recent years. They made a bold choice to leave the first part of the first episode, which takes place in Japan, undubbed, and then briefly have the voice actors speak in accents appropriate for the characters' native languages. The move pays off, as it adds to the show's real-world sensibilities.
Like any good con artist, Great Pretender understands that knowing when to make an exit is just as important as nailing the first impression. There are parts of each arc that don't hold up to harsh scrutiny – small plot conveniences and breaks from reality – and could cause a slower-paced story to unravel. However, as the story moves at a good clip without dwelling on such weak points, trying to to poke at them feels more like nitpicking than anything else. Let Great Pretender charm you – I promise it won't steal your money, unless maybe you deserve it.